Age Matters

As shown in the image below which I created in Excel, President Biden was 19 when the Cuban Missile Crises brought the world to its knees, and he was 30 when he entered government after the Vietnam war ended. President Kennedy, who was assassinated a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was only 45 when it took place in October 1962.  Kennedy’s Russian counterpart in that terrifying episode, Nikita Khrushchev, was already 68 and much more seasoned in war politics when he confronted Kennedy’s impetuous courage.  Kennedy was in his early 20s during WWII, while Khrushchev was in his late 40s.  I think the age of the leaders and firsthand experience in prior conflicts mattered a lot then, and that it still matters a lot now – even if it’s not always clear how.

Less than a year after Kennedy was shot, Khrushchev was ousted from government. But unlike other deposed Russian leaders before him, Khrushchev did not get killed when he was ousted.  He was pensioned off with an apartment in Moscow and a house in the countryside, where he devoted time to writing his memoirs before being reported of dying of a heart attack.   Khrushchev’s memoirs were smuggled out of Russia and published in English in two volumes before his death in 1971.  The paperback of Volume I has 1036 pages and sells on Amazon for $38.94 while that of Volume II has 896 pages and sells for the same price.  They were translated by Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita’s son, who died in Cranston, Rhode Island on June 18, 2020 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  Even though he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, Dr. Khrushchev remained a staunch defender of his father, who succeeded Joseph Stalin as premier of the Soviet Union in 1953 and was perceived by some hardliners of his day as a lightweight.  I have not read the memoirs because it is not available in digital format.  I am not eager to read them because I have found that memoirs by political leaders tend to be highly biased.

I have a strong preference for unauthorized biographies of people who kept secret diaries.  Max Weber’s diaries, for instance, had to wait for his wife to die before they would contribute to an unbiased account of his life.  Napoleon left an extensive collection of diaries and unsent letters, as did the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  Mark Twain was also a skeptic of autobiographies.  He left instructions to not publish his memoirs until 100 years after his death.  Finally in 2010 they were published, and the Amazon reviews are terrible. It was apparently not a page turner.

Back to the timeline shown below, when Putin entered government after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Biden had nearly 20 years of hands-on experience in government.  Zelensky and Macron, on the other hand, were still teenagers then.  Macron was at the high school where he fell in love with one of his teachers, who would later become his wife.  Zelenskyy, who grew up speaking Russian, was learning English so he could go study in Israel, but his father, who was the head of the Department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology, did not let him go.

In his book, The Cycles of American History (1986), Arthur Schlesinger points out the importance of the age of the leaders in a conflict.  Based on how the threat of nuclear Armageddon has subsided over the last two generations, I’d say its good news that Biden and Putin are both older. For all we know, they both still have nightmares about the Cuban Crisis, but even if they didn’t, they are old enough to remember how close the world came to oblivion.  While I doubt that Biden and Putin want to get into a showdown over who will push the nuclear button first, I can also see how either one thinks the other fears pursuing the nuclear threat to get their way.  Stated differently, when Putin goes there, it’s probably his way of saying that it’s time to stop the fighting.  

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